Palm Springs: Donald Wexler’s Desert Modernism

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Leff Residence, 1957, Palm Springs, CA, Wexler and Harrison
Photo: Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai, 2005, © Juergen Nogai Courtesy Palm Springs Art Museum

One of the first structures–in fact, one of the first signs of life–you encounter after exiting Interstate 10 at Highway 111 and winding around the north face of Mt. San Jacinto toward Palm Springs is pointedly modern. The “flying wedge” canopy on Swiss architect Albert Frey’s 1965 Tramway Gas Station is as angular as it is iconic. Now the resort town’s official visitor center, the restored structure’s geometry offers a hard-edged juxtaposition to the natural shapes of its mountain backdrop. And like the monolith in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the conspicuous little gem signals something special ahead.

Mid-century modern architecture permeates Palm Springs and shapes its retro-party vibe. It’s the architecture of optimism–low slung and wide open to let the sun shine in. Here, a fanatical community of aficionados, enthusiasts and preservationists prepare all year for Modernism Week, which draws tens of thousands of architecture buffs from around the world each February. Next to the Palm Springs International Film Festival a month earlier, Modernism Week has become the town’s most important annual cultural event.

Much of the week’s program unfolds at Palm Springs Art Museum, which in recent years has mounted various architecture-oriented exhibitions in its main galleries, including “Julius Shulman: Palm Springs” in 2008 and “Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner” in 2010. This year, “Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler” (on view through May 29) celebrates yet another slice of Desert Modernism.

You enter the exhibition by walking under a full-scale sectional replica of a signature Wexler “folded” metal roof, toward a large-scale Juergen Nogai photograph of the 1962 Wexler and Rick Harrison Steel House (2010) in the north part of town. Drawn largely from the Donald Wexler Collection in the ENV Archives-Special Collections at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, the exhibition includes original working and presentation drawings, photographs (including several by Shulman), models and a new, slickly produced video.

Now 85 and in delicate health, Wexler was one of the movers and shapers of Desert Modernism, practicing in what he calls the “golden age” of California architecture from the immediate post-war years through the 1970s. Wexler graduated from University of Minnesota and moved in 1950 to Los Angeles to work for Richard Neutra. He occasionally visited Palm Springs and, in 1953, took a position here with William Cody. Inevitably, Wexler started his own firm and worked almost exclusively in and around Palm Springs. He designed schools, commercial buildings and dozens of houses, most notably his late-’50s prefabricated Steel Homes, Palm Springs International Airport (1965), Maurice and Dinah (Shore) Smith Residence (1964), Wexler Residence (1955), Royal Hawaiian Estates (1960) and Larson Justice Center (1996).

Keenly aware of the extreme landscape and climate, Wexler tailored energy-efficient designs for the harsh desert. He used mostly steel, glass and concrete–inorganic materials that hold up in the blast-furnace summers and require little maintenance compared to natural materials. Like other modern architects working in the desert, Wexler favored deep eaves and overhangs to protect his structures and their inhabitants from the unforgiving sun. Likewise, shaded walkways lead to many of his commercial buildings–most notably the dramatic arched concrete canopy jutting from downtown’s Spa Resort Hotel, which he designed with Harrison, Cody and Philip Koenig.

Wexler’s prevailing style was minimal, functional and innovative. He introduced prefab steel construction almost a generation before the rest of the country caught on and solar collectors before President Carter installed panels on the White House (President Reagan removed them). The Steel Homes propelled Wexler to national acclaim as a pioneer in his collaboration with US Steel Corp., Alexander Construction Co. and structural engineer Bernard Perlin, who held the patent for the all-steel modular system. Until recently, architects including Ana Escalante and Lance O’Donnell would consult with Wexler on restorations and additions to his buildings. He also influenced LA architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, who designed the prefab steel and glass iT House in the High Desert, near Joshua Tree National Park.

In the sprawling landscape of desert architecture, Wexler’s work still stands out. His design and aesthetic pass the test of time, and a few of his structures have become iconic. For generations to come, architects will refer to his no-nonsense minimalism, functionality and efficiency. Wexler, after all, was a pioneer in the movement toward simple and sustainable living–the holy grail of new architecture.

—STEVEN BILLER

homepage image:
Maurice and Dinah (Shore) Smith Residence, 1964
Presentation drawing by L. Thompson